Provocations: e-Learning in the UK

Some provocations from the Future of e-Learning panel at the Times Festival of Education 2013, chaired by the wonderful and witty Dr. Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College. Food for thought. Don't know about you but I'll certainly be munching on some of this. 

Rohan Silva, senior policy advisor to the PM (at the time of writing - soon-to-be EdTech entrepreneur)felt that something special is happening in EdTech, that "we are on the cusp of a revolution". He offered 3 provocations:

  1. In EdTech, all of the innovation is from the States. Britain has an established, world-class education system but it's been slow and complacent. We've got to push ourselves.
  2. A lot of the focus so far in EdTech has been aimed at the 1st world and yet there are 100m Indian and Chinese students in need of education. Britain has something to contribute here - there's an opportunity to develop EdTech products that are tailored to the BRICs.
  3. For the UK, as far behind as we may be, all is not lost. So far, we have been taking offline content and putting it online. The next step is to incorporate interactivity. We need to lean in. EdTech is a $4TR market, growing at 8.5% per year. It's a huge opportunity to change lives.

Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the Open University, sought to redefine the debate on e-Learning. We're focused on the wrong thing, he said. It's not about e-Learning versus face-to-face but about creating the richest experience. The goal is great learning. 

Together with the lovely Daphne Koller, Stanford Professor and one of the founders of Coursera, he made the case for blended learning and the flipped classroom. They talked about the convenience of delivering content before class in a personalised format (where students can pause, rewind and reflect) and using valuable class-time for meaningful engagement - two-way discussion, debate and dialogue. Martin Bean described the need to move teaching from "Sage on the Stage" to "Coach on the Side", to make it experiential. That way, we can still give students that sense of wonder and love that makes great learning possible.  

In response to a question on the dehumanisation of education, Daphne Koller pointed out that tech can humanise. It can bring together a huge global audience in a way that offline systems cannot. It can make education accessible. 40% of Coursera's students, for example, come from the developing world. There is still much work to be done but progress is being made and the growth in e-Learning has been phenomenal.

What will the future of education look like? Who knows? The panel felt strongly that we are likely to see some dramatic changes to the learning landscape. They predicted a "hollowing out" at universities and colleges as curated content on online learning platforms becomes increasingly popular. Institutions like Harvard, MIT and Stanford have been driving this revolution - they're not going to go away, they'll still be standing. But what about the others? Where are our UK universities?

Reminds me of Clayton Christensen's "Innovator's Dilemma". No one said it would be easy to dance in the face of disruption but for those who get their heads around it and do stretch themselves, embrace change and challenge their own incumbency, the rewards will be rich.

Note from the author: No, I don't think it's about tearing down all the brick-and-mortar schools and doing away with human interaction. I think there's a happy medium to be had through blended learning wherever possible. But I do think that technology's ability to democratise education can't be ignored and we haven't even seen the best it can do.